Friday, January 30, 2009

American Buffalo by Steven Rinella

So these are some of the facts I've gleaned from reading "American Buffalo" by Steven Rinella.

¤ There is a town or City named Buffalo in eighteen states
¤ Tatanka is the Lakota word for Buffalo
¤ Black Diamond, the "model" for the Buffalo nickel, who had been confined in a very small cage in the Central Park Menagerie, was sold to a meat packer for $300, and his head was put on the wall of the guy's office
¤ Buffalo Bill's entire herd of 20 buffalo were killed by pneumonia in 1886-1887 while he performed in New York
¤ The Blackfoot Indians of the northern great plains believed that the buffalo once hunted and ate humans, but then the maker of people gave humans bows and flint knives and instructed them to eat the buffalo instead. Some plains tribes did not eat the thymus glands, or sweetbreads, of buffalo, believing they were chunks of human flesh still stuck in the buffalo's throat

In 2005, Steven Rinella won a lottery permit to hunt for an American buffalo or bison in the wilderness of Alaska. Despite great odds, Rinella managed to kill a buffalo on a snow-covered mountain and then raft the meat back to civilization, all the while being trailed by grizzly bears and suffering from hypothermia. Now while I can totally relate to Rinella's recounting of facts about the buffalo and his seeming love of the animal as he describes stalking it, I can't understand how he can pull that trigger at the moment of reckoning. But as for the rest of his story, I found it extremely interesting and thought provoking, as it is a tale of the many ways in which the buffalo has shaped our national identity.

Rinella says "I sometimes imagine that we saved the buffalo from the brink of extinction for the simple reason that the animal provided a handy mirror in which we could see our innermost desires and failures, and our most confounding contradictions. Our efforts to use the buffalo as a looking glass have rendered the animal almost inscrutable. At once it is a symbol of the tenacity of wilderness and the destruction of wilderness; it's a symbol of Native American culture and the death of Native American culture; it's a symbol of the strength and vitality of America and the pettiness and greed of America; it represents a frontier both forgotten and remembered; it stands for freedom and captivity, extinction and salvation. Perhaps the buffalo's enduring strength and legacy come from this chameleonic wizardry, this ability to provide whatever we need at the given moment. Maybe that's what the sculptor James Earle Fraser had in mind when he put the buffalo on the American nickel. In pursuit of a timeless design, he gave us an image that will never lose its meaning, whatever that meaning might ultimately be."

Sunday, January 25, 2009

The Year of Living Biblically by A. J. Jacobs

I really liked A. J. Jacobs' first book, "The Know it All". In that one, his quest was to read the Encyclopedia Britannica from A to Z. I thought it was uproaringly funny how he worked all these little bits of information he had gleaned from his reading into his every day conversations.
When I heard he had a second book out, and this time he was going to attempt to obey the Bible as literally as possible for one full year, I knew I wanted to read it. And the book does not disappoint. Because not only does he attempt to follow all the well known principles of the Bible, like the Ten Commandments, or loving your neighbor, and being fruitful and multiplying...but he also tries to obey all the hundreds of lesser known rules, such as avoiding wearing clothes made of mixed fibers, etc. This is quite a daunting task and as he explores all the consequences of attempting to follow these precepts we are taken along on his thought provoking and hilarious journey--and we even learn a few things along the way. As one of the quotes sprinkled liberally throughout the book says "Religion makes the strange familiar and the familiar strange."

This book is extremely funny and self-deprecating and not only is it quirky and entertaining, but full of life lessons and ultimately beautiful and moving. It examines religion in terms of modern life and makes the whole experience delightful and charming. It's a spiritual journey that is both reverent and irreverent and a really entertaining read. And like A. J. says at one point in the book "My favorite parts of the Bible are the ones that admit that we don't know everything, that stress the mystery of God and the universe." Like Ecclesiastes 6:12 which says:

For who knows what is good for man while he lives the few days of his vain life, which he passes like a shadow? For who can tell man what will be after him under the sun?

So if you want a highly entertaining book that's funny and thought provoking at the same time, I recommend you pick up a copy of either of A.J.'s books. And if you want to test the waters so to speak before you pick up copies of his books, check out his website here. You'll love him.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Home to Holly Springs by Jan Karon

I am a big fan of Jan Karon's Mitford series. They center around a fictional town called "Mitford" and the local Episcopalian priest, Father Tim. They are populated with quirky small town characters that you get to know and come to love, and you look forward to visiting because a trip to Mitford is always good for the soul. But it has been said that the main character of the novels is not Father Tim, or Mitford itself, but Jesus Christ (as faith seems to permeate the life of her characters). Jan Karon is comfortable with that characterization. She has said that God led her to write the books, because on her own she would never have considered writing about a balding, pudgy, sixty-something cleric.

A major theme of the Mitford novels was Father Tim's impending retirement. He wrestled with the decision to retire and wondered what retirement would hold for him. This book is the first in her new series to be called "The Father Tim novels".

Father Tim receives an unsigned note from his hometown in Mississippi. It contains two words--Come home. After more than 38 years away, he does just that, he goes home. He and his faithful dog Barnabus pile into his mustang convertible with the top down and head to the home of his childhood Holly Springs, Mississippi. Father Tim thinks Thomas Wolfe was probably right in saying you can't go home again, but when he gets there he finds a surprising number of old connections have survived his time away. So begins a journey of discovery for Father Tim. He comes face to face with family secrets and relives memories with childhood friends and family. Jan Karon has written a bewitching and captivating book that is poignant and laced with wisdom and a generous dollop of forgiveness. I truly loved this book.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

John Lennon: the Life by Philip Norman

Philip Norman wrote "Shout", a so-called definitive biography of the Beatles. Now he has written a biography about the life of the Beatles charismatic and witty leader, John Winston Lennon. He certainly had access to all the major players in John's life and some previously untapped sources, so the book makes for interesting reading. And believe me, I thought I had read and knew just about every detail of the life of John, Paul, George, and Ringo--being a strong Beatle fan myself, but there were a few surprises in this book for me as well. So I think it is a book that will appeal to the casual fan, as well as any died in the wool "Beatlemaniac".

The author says he spent three years researching the book, and the book covers every aspect of John's life, from his upbringing by his strict Aunt Mimi, through his student days, his meeting and partnership with Paul McCartney, the Beatles early Hamburg days, his affair with Japanese performance artist Yoko Ono, and their eventual marriage, culminating with his early death at the age of 40, when he was shot down in front of the Dakota apartment building in New York by a deranged fan. He manages to paint a portrait of a very complex man who seemed to be a bundle of contradictions. John was very tough, and very cynical, but also vulnerable and very insecure. He was very witty and funny and yet very naive.

John Lennon in Hamburg on a fairground , near the Reeperbahn.

The book is broken into five parts (1) The Country Boy ( 2) To The Toppermost of the Poppermost (which was a phrase that John used when they were in Hamburg and the other Beatles would ask him "John, where are we going?"--and he would reply "To the Toppermost of the Poppermost") (3) A Genius of the Lower Crust (4) Zen Vaudeville (5) Pizza and Fairy Tales.

Each part has several sections that start off with a quote from John. For example, under The Country Boy part, there is a section titled "Shortsighted John Wimple Lennon" with a quote by John saying "I thought, I'm a genius or I'm mad. Which is it?" The book also finishes up with a Postscript called Sean Remembers, contributed by John's son with Yoko Ono, Sean Lennon.

The last major biography of John was published twenty years ago by Albert Goldman. This book was written with the blessing of Yoko Ono and the cooperation of Paul McCartney, though it has been said that both were a little unhappy over the results. Anyone who has paid any attention at all to the lyrics of John's songs over the years can see how emotionally tortured he was, how much pent up anger he contained, and how his life long fear of abandonment figured prominently in his music.

The irony of his death was that it came at a time when he seemed to have finally exorcised his demons and achieved a degree of contentment and fulfillment in his life. He was starting to mature and mellow and one can't help but wonder what other changes would have occurred if he had been allowed to grow old, and what new trails he would have blazed for us had he been given the chance.
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